Retro Review: The Omen (1976)
 By The Rev

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May 21, 2006, 3:10 am

I’ve never really been a religious person.  I know, I’m an ordained minister and I’m not a religious person, fancy that contradiction eh?  At any rate, this does have a point so please bear with me, but when it comes to popular culture I more often than not don’t really find myself giving a damn about it when its prime claim to fame is that it bases itself on religious doctrine.  Sorry, but The Da Vinci Code is something I couldn’t give a damn about.  So, when it comes to religious horror, how exactly do I stand?  Well, let me put it this way.  If it’s a good horror movie to begin with, I will watch it and enjoy it, because that’s all its based around.  If however it gets its primary fears from the threat of damnation and preying upon the religious beliefs of its viewing audience, then it goes on the list of things I couldn’t give a damn about.  So, now with that long and plodding introduction out of the way, I’d like to come around to talking about the 1976 classic, The Omen.  Although it’s a movie that has a lot of its roots based in Catholicism, it is still quite scary on its own right and maintains some of the most jarring imagery in horror history which makes it a classic by any definition of the word.

June 6th, 6 a.m., Rome, Italy.  American ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) rushes to the hospital with the news that his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) is in labor.  Unfortunately, by the time he reaches the hospital he finds out that his child died during the birthing process.  Clearly devastated but not knowing how to break the news to his wife, Robert is thrown into a conundrum when a priest comes up to him with an offer that is hard to refuse.  A woman with no family died during childbirth, it would really be no trouble to switch her live baby for his wifes dead one, right?  Though conflicted, the love he has for his wife wins out and he agrees to switch the babies.  Naming their child Damien, everything seems to be going fabulously for the new happy family, and nothing could bring them down. 

…until Damiens fifth birthday that is.  As Damien and his family are having a wonderful time at the party, a mysterious black dog watches from the fringe.  Looking at the strange animal, Damiens nanny seemingly becomes entranced, disappearing into the house and soon reappearing standing on the roof.  With a smile on her face, she cries out for Damien to look at her, and that everything is his.  She then violently hangs herself, smashing through a window as her lifeless body blows in the breeze.

What seems to be an isolated incident escalates into a series of stranger events and mysterious, increasingly violent and lethal accidents.  With the help of photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner), Robert is determined to seek out the truth about his son, and determine whether or not the prophecies are true and that Damien is none other than the antichrist.  The only question is, can he stop Damien in time to save the world?

Directed by veteran action director Richard Donner, The Omen is a movie that knows how to maintain a great pace.  Stylistically it never slows down, keeping at an almost breakneck pace creates as much terror as it does from its wonderful scare moments.  It wisely keeps only the most tenuous of actual connections to religious doctrines, instead establishing a vague sort of middle-ground to the mythology that even the most atheistic or ignorant of moviegoers can understand.  This keeps the film not only grounded, but accessible to most everyone watching it.

Bringing it into a level of class far above many of its horror contemporaries are a top notch cast including such great actors as Gregory Peck, Billie Whitelaw, Lee Remick, David Warner and Harvey Stephens as the young Damien.  In stark contrast to most other demonic children who followed in his wake, Damien is actually quite cherubic and innocent, enough so that to a point you are left to wonder if he is truly as evil as we are supposed to believe.  Still, great and creepy an actor though the kid may be, the film is brought to a completely different level with the addition of Gregory Peck as the protagonist Robert Thorn.  Peck has always been one of my favorite actors since seeing him in To Kill a Mockingbird, so to see him in a horror film I’ll admit to a bit of confusion at first.  Then seeing him playing this role of a powerful husband and father looking to hold everything together, it all makes sense as he brings a sense of style and class to what could have otherwise been another macho middle-aged American guy sort of role.  All around this film maintains a very top notch cast.

The manifestations of Damiens evil also deserve mention, because as of the time of the film nothing really had been seen like them.  The imagery is startling, brutal and extremely violent, be it the baboon attack, the hanging, the lightning rod, or the films notorious plate-glass decapitation.  The accidents that occur as manifestations of Damiens self-defense mechanism were definite precursors to the Final Destination series, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as they are quite gruesome and ahead of their time I the 70’s.  Jerry Goldsmiths iconic orchestral score only helps push these manifestations of evil over the top, giving them power and lasting resonance (and perhaps a sense of fear the next time you hear a choir chanting ominously in Latin; then again, when’s the last time that’s been a good thing?)

Religious though its origins may be, The Omen gets its horror from traditional and excellently executed scares, pushed over the top by wonderful performances from a great cast.  Truly a classic, so let us hope the remake gets it right.

Review our review of The Omen (2006) remake.


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